Adventures from Back of Beyond

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Deer Creek Rescue

Here’s another good Grand Canyon helicopter story.

In September of 1979, I worked on a National Park Service river patrol trip through the Grand Canyon. I was working as a lowly GS-3 park ranger (bottom rung of the ladder) at the south rim.

We would patrol the South Kaibab trail down to the river, float on river patrol several days to Deer Creek, then hike up and out to the North Rim via Surprise Valley and the Bill Hall trail.

My trail mates were Rose Lechner, the secretary to then Superintendent Merle Stitt, and Gary Kuiper, the park’s Chief Ranger. Both big shots.

As an aside, our NPS boatman on this trip was none other than Steve Martin, who is now the Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, and the former deputy director of the entire NPS.

After a relatively uneventful hike down and float trip (with the exception of a terrifying technical climb up into the Thunder River cave), Gary, Rose and I departed on our all day hike to the North Rim via Deer Creek.

Unfortunately, within about an hour we had lost the trail. None of us had hiked that section of the Canyon before, and it was not well marked. We were going in an uncomfortable direction to me, averse to risks as I am.

Gary was leading and we were bushwhacking up and out on no discernible route whatsoever. It got steeper and steeper, and at one particularly steep spot Rose had to take her pack off to hand to Gary so she could make it up a ledge.

Gary was leaning over to grab the pack when the ledge cracked and broke. What happened next is indelibly etched in my mind.

“Gary!” shouted Rose, as he fell head over heels straight down a 12 foot drop. He was a relatively large man, well over 200 pounds. Not out of shape, but not a physical specimen either. He landed heavily, then continued tumbling another 60 feet down a steep, rough, rocky slope.

We were literally miles from anywhere we could get help. I watched stunned, in utter disbelief at what I was seeing.

Gary was lucky. He tucked his head and rolled when he first hit. But his right shoulder took the brunt of his weight.

Gary rolled down and down the steep slope, and finally came to a stop just short of another cliff, a steep drop down yet another ravine that he wouldn’t have walked away from. He was stopped by a large fishhook cactus the size of a fire hydrant, with spines the size of your index finger. We would later pull 2 inch long cactus needles from his skin.

A long silent moment passed. Seemed like forever. I thought the worst.

“I’m OK!” he shouted.

Rose and I looked at each other. Then I just reacted without thinking. Adrenalin pumping, I dropped my pack and raced down the steep slope to try and stop him from falling any further.

I scurried down the steep rocky slope so fast that Rose was alarmed and shouted a caution to me to be careful.

It only took me a few seconds to reach him, covering great bounds with each step, confident in my new Pivetta 5 boots, the official NPS hiking boot.

Pivetta 5s were possibly the most expensive uniform item in a ranger’s official wardrobe, costing several hundred dollars even back then in 1979. Employees at my level did receive a modest uniform allowance, but these boots were far and away above that.

Pivetta 5s were the old style hiking boot, built like a leather tank, stiff, heavy, and solid as they come. They could just bulldoze through rocks and cactus.

I reached Gary and put my arm around him, to prevent him from falling down that second steep cliff, just in case he was unstable. He wasn’t. But his right shoulder was way down where his bicep should have been. The force of the drop had knocked his arm out of its socket. He was in excruciating pain.

He asked for his glasses, which had been knocked off in the fall and were who knows where. I spent a few minutes looking to no avail, then said “Gary, we’ve got to get you out of here.”

Rose and I came up with the plan to stabilize Gary in the shade back by Deer Creek, where large cottonwood trees grew and water would be present. I would then take Gary’s park service radio and hike up high enough to get a signal out and call for help.

Deep in the canyon where we were, no radio signals could penetrate. You had to get up high enough to get line of sight with one of the park’s repeaters.

But Gary’s eyesight was so bad he literally could not see clearly to the ground, which was very steeply sloped and rocky. So I used my new Pivetta 5s and traced out a flat spot step-by-step, gouging out rocks and dirt, to guide him.

“Yes, I can see that. Keep doing that,” he admonished. Slowly and tediously I worked Gary down and off that dangerous cliff, eventually back down to Deer Creek‘s soft bank, water, and shade.

I got ready to hike out. Smartly, Gary told me about Dick McClaren’s twice daily fire reconnaissance flights. If we were lucky, I might be able to radio Dick in his Cessna as he flew over.

So off I went, and I had no idea where I was going. We never did find the point where we lost the trail. So I just headed off in a generally south direction, toward where I thought the trail led into Surprise Valley.

I immediately hit rough going through thick brush along the creek. I was hurrying, not really thinking much about route finding. But only a few minutes out, I was literally crawling on my belly underneath low branches, depressed, discouraged, when I heard the sound of a small propeller-driven airplane. I never saw the plane.

In desperation, I took out Gary’s radio. I didn’t have a call number, so I used his. We talked about this before I left. I was too low on the totem pole to even have my own park service radio or a number.

“211, 210”. Pause. Nothing. I repeated, “211, 210”.

Then, miraculously, “211, go ahead.” My prayers were answered.

“We’ve got a man down! About a mile up Deer Creek from the river. Request immediate medical assistance!” I blurted this out quickly because I didn’t know how long Dick would stay in radio contact as he flew overhead. Any rock face or cliff could’ve blocked our signal.

“Whoa, wait a second, slow down,” Dick replied. And so the conversation started. I didn’t know it at the time, but as I lay on my belly beneath the thick canopy of trees, Dick started a big slow circle overhead to stay in radio contact.

Within 30 minutes an NPS Bell Jet Ranger helicopter landed near our location. I waved it in. I couldn’t believe the pilot could land in such a small, rocky, uneven place, with only literally inches between the ship’s overhead rotating blades and big cottonwood trees.

First bounding out of the chopper was none other than Emergency Medical Technician Ernie Kuncl. The infamous (to me) Ernie “Uncle” Kuncl, the man who’d given me a hard time at my very first NPS medical training a couple of years earlier. The one who disliked me because we at one time were dating the same girl.

But Ernie was a big shot at Grand Canyon because there simply was no one better at what he did. He was an EMT par excellence, without peer. And the man I most wanted to see in this situation.

He wore a big military style helmet and an orange flight suit, the kind with lots of zippers, zippers everywhere it seemed. I remember thinking “how could anyone use so many zippered pockets, they must be for show.” That was Ernie Kuncl.

I led Ernie to Gary. He quickly assessed the situation, his specialty, and without hesitation took a scissors out of his kit and cut off Gary’s uniform shirt sleeve. I winced a bit, since at my pay scale a uniform shirt was a proportionally large amount.

Ernie injected Gary with a heavy dose of morphine. I’ve never seen morphine at work before, but let me tell you it works quickly. Literally within seconds Gary let out a big sigh and his whole body relaxed.

An IV was next. Soon Gary was on the helicopter, evacuated directly to the hospital in Flagstaff. The pilot, before leaving, and almost as an afterthought said to Rose and I, “would you like me to send another helicopter for you?”

As if we would really like to continue our rugged hike out of the canyon at that point. Hell yes we’d like a helicopter ride out of there.

And so it was. Within 30 minutes we were a world apart from where we were, back at the busy south rim heliport, looking at each other with a “wow” expression. We decided to decompress with a treat – Mexican food at the Moqui Lodge.

I still have those Pivetta 5s. They’re still scarred from getting Gary off that cliff.